In recent years, as the state of the economy has slowly improved, the lack of wage and employment protections afforded to unpaid interns has garnered a great deal of media attention. Unfortunately, this is only part of the story. In some cases, unpaid interns may find that they lack legal recourse after experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Because unpaid interns do not receive a paycheck, they are not classified as “employees” under the federal Civil Rights Act. Indeed, most federal laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not offer protection to interns unless they receive “significant remuneration.” The EEOC does not keep statistics on how often unpaid interns are sexually harassed at work, so the scope of the problem remains unclear.
Although federal law does not currently offer much in the way of protection to unpaid interns, states are beginning to take action to close what they see as a particularly egregious loophole. Oregon, for example, passed a law earlier this summer extending protections against harassment and discrimination to interns, regardless of whether they are paid. It is the first state to enact these protections, according to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The District of Columbia has also begun exploring whether it should update its Human Rights Act.
Only time will tell whether more states follow Oregon’s lead, though the implementation of these sorts of protections seems relatively uncontroversial. It is simply unfair to leave an intern who has experienced workplace harassment or discrimination without recourse under the law.
Source: ProPublica.org, “How Unpaid Interns Aren’t Protected Against Sexual Harassment,” Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson, August 9, 2013